Painting as a Coded Message
On some occasions, trying to penetrate Alain Urrutia’s painting, I have felt I was invading an uninhabited palace. Everything seems the same, but an emptiness stands out, that of an eternally still past, in suspension. A living present that is absent but imminent. A sort of fragment, which, as Friedrich Schlegel pointed out in a letter to his brother August Wilhelm, “is the true form of universal philosophy”. Not for no reason Novalis stated that only the incomplete can allow us to advance in the task of knowledge. Also that when we dream we are dreaming we are close to waking. As well as thinkers like Nietzsche, who will grant priority to the incomplete as an artistic quality. Therefore the incomplete is like a wound of the image, like another zone of darkness, like a sleepwalking gaze.
Alain Urrutia moves forward towards discord, from deviation. Doubt corrupts the gaze, which allows itself to be crossed by the idea. Time is accumulated, cloistered. His paintings are made in a rapid process, but are slow to be received. The scale matters little; when it stands out it is solved fearlessly, through flexibility; when it shrinks the response is precise, playing almost magically with modulations of colour from a very limited range of colours.
It is tempting to set out some referents like Luc Tuymans or Michäel Borremans as a starting point. From both of these, as will also happen in artists like Wilhelm Sasnal, he takes that which Jordan Kantor defined as the aesthetic of the technical failure or the aesthetic of the no talent, a strategy worked on in formal and conceptual terms. Also the concept of the incomplete, something which Tuymans and some of his followers have managed to show either by painting figuratively or diagrammatically. Or the somewhat uncomfortable corporality and strange of truncated bodies and useless gestures which have characterised Borremans. But very few sentences could so well designate Alain Urrutia’s pictorial work as the one that Cézanne wrote to Joachim Gasquet before his death: “I am still seeking the sensation of those confused impressions we bring at birth”. These are the words of a Cézanne without strength, but still capable of exuding feelings. Cézanne appealed to the sensitive, and was very clear in his time that others would do with faces what Monet had done with landscape. He was certainly not thinking about Bacon, or about Alain Urrutia, obviously, but his particular capacity to imagine a more agitated way of painting is also obvious.
These were moments of stained canvases, of expressionisms denominated impressionisms, in which the painting stood as a surface. In the end it was not necessary to imitate the real, but rather the colour could also show its artificial condition. If Monet abandons recourse to drawing in order to give priority to colour in that form-background fusion that characterised him, that balancing tension is accelerated in Cézanne’s work, granting priority to the material nature of the pigments. Before this Manet had suppressed the unity of the tale and the special depth; he had brought the background forward. The visual feeling takes primacy. The painting becomes fluid, and the object is no longer isolated but instead floats in an atmosphere that grants unity to the picture. The light dominates and the brushstroke is fragmented. An in the meantime comes Cézanne, with his monumental figures and his unfinished portraits. His ‘reserves’ or empty parts that reveal the white of the canvas underneath in some of his paintings make it so his brush work never seems definitive in any case. Nothing closer to the painting of Gunther Förg. I am thinking of Cézanne’s self-portrait with a hat in 1894, and the background is exactly that. Everything seems not to be concluded. It is no surprise that at the end of his life Cézanne recognised that the sensations of colour that light gives off are for him the cause of the abstractions that do not allow him to cover the canvas nor to follow the delimiting of the objects, resulting in some difficulty to materialise the painting definitively, in that confusion close to the origin. For this reason he will often abandon his paintings without finishing them, with an aesthetic of the no talent close to the artists quoted above.
Maximising the Image. Making the Gaze Tense.
I will never be tired of repeating it. I look for tension in an artist, and I am seduced much more by those who play at maximizing the image than those who devote themselves to cooling it through its content. Also among the artists who are starting out there are those who try to hide their references and those who openly reveal them, immediately showing and assuming their moment of search without fear or difficulty. I like to confess my preference for the latter, for those who allow their trajectory to deploy its own time, those who are capable of caressing their devotions to subsequently undo them and set off in another direction. Except for truly exceptional cases, the former run the risk of drowning in their own vomit of forced originality, falling into the trap of their own deceit. The latter prefer to ask questions and study how the artists who went before them in time have had to deal with them and try to solve them. After assuming the condition of the painting, which is no longer a technique, but rather a tradition, or in other words, after assuming that beyond the act of painting itself, painting is an idea and a way of thinking about painting itself, a kind of self-reference, these artists try out formulas that have already been exposed to overload them into a hybrid present that is capable of giving an overall meaning to all those successes. Of course, that is the case of Alain Urrutia, an artist who has naturally assumed the position that implies that the artist has to be continuously (re)considering his place and asking himself not only why he should continue to paint, but also what for and how to carry on doing it.
For those who know Alain personally, it will be easy to recognise that vehement desire and anxiety enjoyed by anyone in pursuit of anything. And that anything in this case is the image. An image that is composed and decomposed almost instantly, as if it were an attempt to solve a tribute to something that is not clear. Because for Alain, that advance, that looking forward in the guise of impatient desire, holds a double paradoxical meaning, something like the idea of construction by elimination proclaimed by the sculptures of Giacometti, half desire, half nostalgia; a kind of crossroads that needs to be ordered and closed, albeit by adding a veil, as if the idea were to hide certain fragments that allow the image to remain, as if in that mirror of Lewis Carroll: “It disappeared very slowly... finishing off with a smile, which remained for a time after the rest of the animal had disappeared”.(1)
I am thinking of Carlos Alcolea, for whom painting is a struggle against reality. This need for avoidance gives him the form of nonsense. The reality of his characters and landscapes seems to have melted. Everything is the product of diverting the image, of redirecting it. Alcolea was seeking the folding as an inner need. As in Bacon’s paintings, the body tends to escape, and the figure almost disappears. I confess that this attracts me, like Bacon’s work, like that of Tuymans, like that of Alain and of all those painters who distil an image so that when we look at it it seems as if we are drunk. The visual distortions, the chromatic reductions, the blurred focuses, the chromatic distillings, the darkness. Characters who stare, although hardly ever face on.
Alain Urrutia is a painter of heads and not faces, as Deleuze concludes when talking about Bacon. It is a matter of undoing the face, of animalizing it, of darkening it, of whitening it. Or of cutting the framing. Or putting a hood over it. In Bacon it is a head without a face. As takes place in many of Alain Urrutia’s work, what is formed is a zone of indiscernibility, of unspeakability, where everything becomes animal. The painting is a sort of decline. An impossibility that leads us to that Blanchot who cultivated the fragment of the real in order to make the poetic bloom, a Blanchot capable of decomposing the order of the text like a game of sensual symbols capable of veiling concrete attributions or definitions; without any certainties. It is painting as disencounter, as shadow, as a penetration into the unspeakable. The sense of sequence is cut and interrupted. Everything is an act of emptying, of extenuation of a kept image, the one that arrives late, or syncopated. Only the gaze can divine the forms. Like in the expedition through Blanchot’s writing, Alain Urrutia penetrates into the dark, that high passion that according to Kierkegaard would be a passion consecrated to secrecy, without a story.
But we were with Bacon, and with Cézanne. Deleuze puts them together as artists capable of painting sensations. Paintings that affect one’s nervous system. “When Bacon talks of sensation, he means two things, very close to Cézanne. Negatively he says that the form referred to sensation (Figure) is the opposite of the form referred to an object that one imagines to represent (figuration). (...) And, positively, Bacon states that sensation is what goes from one “order” to another one, from one “level” to another, from one “domain” to another. For this reason sensation is the master of deformations, an agent of deforming the body”(2).
If I am applying these ideas to Alain Urrutia it is firstly because his scenes go from the order of the everyday, given that in many cases they are images taken from the artist’s personal experiences, to the order of the unrepresentable and the symbolic. The stories are interlinked and deconstructed. We speak of lack of clarity and definition, of out-of-focus, of fragments, of hiding the ability to paint well, of overlapping, of cutting, of interruptions, of reductions in tone... All thanks to the simple concept of manually processing the ‘image’ of the photograph in search of its density. Thus, that latent state of violence, of violation of anatomy and time as an unsolvable enigma. In the first of his texts, the sculptor Medardo Rosso said, “in art, it is important to make the subject be forgotten” (3). But Francis Bacon also, when he spoke of ‘moving sequences’ or ‘orders of sensations’. With Bacon, the figure breaks away from what is figurative. “I have wanted to paint the scream before the horror”, he stated. And as with Bacon, with Alain Urrutia there is an area of indiscernibility, where everything tends to escape.
I’m still thinking of Bacon. Although with a sideways glance at Richter, at Tuymans, at Borremans, etc., I understand that there are less obvious aspects which I have consider. It is necessary to make a detour in order to talk about Alain Urrutia’s painting. Like in Bacon, he gives the impression that he is seeking out the nervous system. Bacon confessed that he was seeking to communicate in a direct, raw manner, and that people considered that his paintings were horrible because they understood them directly. What Bacon termed “accident” had a lot to do with all this, a sort of involuntary yet instinctive mark which helped him to develop the image, or to what is the same: for it to lose its appearance, placing it on record in this very distortion. John Berger lucidly points out: “Bacon is the opposite of an apocalyptic painter who envisages the worst is likely: For Bacon, the worst has already happened. The worst that has happened has nothing to do with the blood, the stains, the viscera. The worst is that man has come to be seen as mindless” (4). But what are the protagonists of Alain Urrutia’s paintings hiding? Why do they have their backs to us? What are they looking at? What are they doing? The reality fragments and dislocates their meanings.
Alain Urrutia’s painting is the story of a loss, but also of a revelation. What is not said. Not born. The alien. That which still Belongs to the invisible, to the intensity of the darkness. It is a mysterious painting because it rests on its own shadow. This is how Alain Urrutia maximises the image, how he concentrates his strengths. As happens with poets, the visible is contained in order to work the tension of the blurred, the limit where the possible resounds. It is painting as a coded message. Alain Urrutia deliberately slows down perception of the image, and time becomes tense, expands and is intensified. The forms are defined after a gap of silence. On other occasions they never become defined. We do not know whether they are coming or going, emerging or disappearing. Something like in the photographs by Sam Samore, in which reality is blurred in order to make each of his characters portrayed mysterious. Samore’s images lack a story, they are stripped of information emphasising everything through fragmentation and by working with a coarse grain, which turns the scene into something blurred. This ambiguity intensifies the curiosity of a spectator who moves in the purest of uncertainties, in a catalogue of anonymous characters who we nevertheless feel are close or known, as in the case of Alain Urrutia. Samore only used the camera himself for the series Allegories of Beauty, which, in turn, has a close relationship to the history of art. In this sense the artist confesses that his photographs continue the tradition of the renaissance portrait, and that he conceptually sees them as paintings. With Alain Urrutia the game is something else. The influence of photography and cinema in the framings of his paintings is indubitable. Surely without thinking that, paradoxically, when filmmakers like Bresson, Antonioni and Godard seek the lack of framing in order to seek a non-narrative suspension, they are acting like painters.
In this sense we might think about some frames by Luis Buñuel. He himself, in a text entitled ‘Découpage or Cinegraphic Segmentation’, stated that in terms of editing, it is nothing other than getting down to manual work, the material nature of couple a few pieces together following on from other ones, making the different shots line up together, freeing it from untimely image with the help of scissors. A delicate operation, but extremely manual. Like Buñuel, Alain Urrutia dissects his world, his disquiets, through the irrepresentable. The painting as an expansion of all possibilities.
The Blurred Presence
In painting, since Gerhard Richter, the fight has been to represent what cannot be represented through a lack of clarity and definition. Alain is one of the many artists who have taken up that legacy, through Luc Tuymans, in an attempt to cover the image with a veil. Both Richter and Tuymans walked towards the dissolution of the image, hindering and impeding our vision as simple spectators before an out-of-focus frame. The individual and collective memory and their apprehension difficulties justify that reduction of the range and the visibility. Meanwhile, the spectator must require an effort to interpret what is being told (content that hides meaning), to imagine beyond that veil, hanging like a curtain-facade.
With Urrutia, the lack of clarity and definition will be a resource capable of making things express themselves with greater strength through their absence. Thus, the works with these characteristics maintain that air of atemporality and indefinition. Because their aim is not to say everything, but to reveal an enigma. That condensation and will to do or soften the edges, as I pointed out earlier, seems to point to a special way of seeing and representing that led many contemporary artists to a crude form of illustration using photographic and filmic sources. The painter and theorist Jordan Kantor explains this, with a certain amount of irony, in a text published in Artforum at the end of 2004 in reference to three interesting painters (Wilhelm Sasnal, Eberhard Havekost and Magnus von Plessen) under the title of “The Tuymans Effect” (5). What is important for Kantor is not a mere formal strategy inherited from the universe left behind by Tuymans, but rather the intensity with which they manage to accept and deny painting at the same time. “By introducing the thematic exhibition with series that claim to focus ‘on’ African colonialism or xenophobia, Tuymans opened the doors to a myriad of painting projects that are justified, according to the words of one of their main supporters, Ulrich Loock, by a discourse of ‘extra-painting’” (6).
Indeed, to understand the work by Luc Tuymans, we must begin with a paradoxical premise: the permanence of the static image in memory is stronger than that of the moving image. The impossibility of recovering that image, its finiteness and disappearance accumulated meanings that develop their mental equivalent, which will remain, and increasingly so in movement. And this is one of the key factors that leads Alain to paint in this way, like the decline of the static image that gives rise to an accumulation of information that makes it dense; the distortion becomes invisibility and invisibility becomes essence. Many artists after Tuymans assume that the material nature of the static image is always greater and that the impact it leaves behind is much stronger, except in special cases, such as that of the image of the aircraft crashing again and again into the Twin Towers, undoubtedly the image of our era.
In that way, there is no doubt that Alain Urrutia takes up the baton left behind by Tuymans, who, in turn, had taken it from a Gerhard Richter who understands painting conceptually as a decision process and who formally drinks directly from the relationship between painting and photography. Of course, Richter took all that much further than Tuymans in his Atlas. However, Tuymans also takes up that freedom to paint what he sees on a postcard to go beyond the mere exaltation of space, the composition or colour as a constructive and priority logic of painting. Thus, on the road to the destruction of the image, Alain seems to be clear: “More than ever, today, although saying it is paradoxical in a hypervisible world, it can be said that we have ‘eyes so as not to see’. Thus, the references I use are based on the fact that many of the things around us and the situations that could, in principle, go by unnoticed have an aesthetic character and reading that is formalised with their representation”.
Alain Urrutia begins with fragments of images that are fragments of the images of his own life, as if he decided to paint in a kind of Moebius band where we do not know when we are in or out of the image itself. In this sense, the situation is very Derridian, in that it reflects on how the footprint, ruin or ashes are inseparable from the semantic field of memory. Like Derrida, for Alain Urrutia, that process of anamnesis involves a double paradoxical desire: “that of the ashes, total destruction, the deletion of the deletion of the footprint itself, disappearance without trace and, on the other hand, the unavoidable need for keeping something in the memory, for keeping everything and losing nothing, keeping a copy, a file, the unthinkable”.(7) Derrida wondered how to love anything other than the possibility of ruin, something other than impossible totality. He did it in Mémoires d’aveugle, a text written for an exhibition of drawings on blind people in the Louvre Museum. And there is nothing better than blindness to understand the meaning of the characters in the paintings by Alain Urrutia, even those that look directly at us, as if they had no life inside.
Alain Urrutia paints to keep. Like infinite memory. Like a remnant (the longing of Alain) which, in keeping with Derrida, would be that which may disappear radically like substance. Meanwhile, we could mention other artists that follow the strategy of proceeding on the basis of images that are prior to the painting. Gert Rappenecker comes to mind, with his ‘photocopy’ paintings, working his landscapes from the mid-1990s based on tourist leaflets. Or the suspended images of Johannes Kahrs, which are born of cinematographic fiction. They all work with already existing images, stolen, bathed in a melancholic halo that is the product of their longing to capture the image that reflects reality, that is never the image of reality, but rather the transversal look at it, the instance of a present that floats in the memory. This explains its density and the work carried out on the defect of the image. Because his journey is that of encounter. Or rather, that of encounter with light. This gives rise to suggestion, intensity, the subtlety that is born of shadow, lack of clarity and definition or the reflection of the image.
Alain Urrutia is aware that after Richter the canvas is no longer blank beforehand, and painting does not serve to produce the image but rather it is the image that serves us to produce painting. In Alain Urrutia it is the image, or its dislocation, which generates another new image. One thus understands his worn out painting, assuming, as did Richter decades earlier, a clear premise: if in photography reality becomes an image, when this comes to painting the image becomes reality. So simple, and so complex, is Alain Urrutia’s painting, in which inhabits a sort of strangeness that comes from a converting of the familiar into a parenthesis. Like that “White neutrality” that Roland Barthes sees in L’Étranger by Camus: a style of absence that is almost an absence of style, in which all character is abolished in benefit of the neutral and inert elements of the form. There is always something that escapes us. As if painting were assumed as a type of magic, and the gaze had slipped into the abyss of the obscure, into the challenge of the incomplete.
1.- Carroll, L.: Through the Looking-Glass, Macmillan, London, 1871.
2.- Deleuze, F. Bacon - Logique de la sensation (1981). (The Logic of Sensation, 2003)
3.- Rosso, M.: Medardo Rosso, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago de Compostela, 1996.
4.- Berger, J.: About Looking
5.- Kantor, J.: “The Tuymans Effect,” Artforum International, November 2004.
7.- Cristina de Peretti / Paco Vidarte: Jacques Derrida, Ediciones del Orto, Madrid, 1998.